From an underdog in the U.S. to Japan’s top dog


Special To The Japan Times

Two years ago, 32-year-old director/translator Eriko Ogawa returned to Japan after 10 years in New York and presented a riveting production of “The Late Henry Moss,” Sam Shepard’s 2000 Pulitzer prize-winning tale of loves and hatreds in a frontier family way out West.

Though still a virtual unknown in her homeland, that debut work in Japan earned Ogawa the Odashima Yushi Award, a prestigious 2010 drama-translation prize.

By 2011, the Japanese drama world really got to know her face when Ogawa walked away with the much coveted Yomiuri Drama Award for three plays she directed that year — her original adaptation of the epic courtroom drama “Twelve Angry Men” by Reginald Rose, J.B. Priestley’s classic thriller, “An Inspector Calls,” and gay-themed “Pride” by the rising English writer Alexi Kaye Campbell.

Now she’s a big name at home. But when Ogawa arrived in New York back in 2001 and attended the renowned Actors Studio — alma mater of Robert de Niro and Al Pacino — she was a complete unknown. She went on to become the first-ever Japanese person to graduate from the directors course before cofounding with her classmates the multi-national Worken’ Glacier Theater Company, which produced cutting-edge works at fringe theaters. Then, in 2005, she started Theatre Arts Japan, which staged great contemporary Japanese plays translated into English.

In this respect, Ogawa stands apart from most young directors in Japan, who tend to form companies to stage works that they write and often direct and act in. Ogawa, in contrast, is a bona fide professional director who’s also capable of expertly translating and directing top foreign plays, too.

This November through December, Ogawa brings to Japan Suzan-Lori Parks’ 2002 Pulitzer prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog.” With ubiquitous New York street-slang, foul language and hip humor, the play presents two African-American brothers Lincoln (Tetsuya Chiba) and Booth (Shinichi Tsutsumi) as they talk about their lives, their identities and the reality of their hopeless futures. The work would be a challenge for most to render meaningfully into Japanese, but for Ogawa, she says, this really “ain’t no big thing.”

What drew you to theater?

Like many kids I used to act in small plays at elementary school. At high school in Tokyo I joined the drama club, and it was there that I directed a play for the first time. The school I attended, though, was a “combined” school for girls, which taught you from elementary grade through to university. Somehow, I didn’t want to be restricted by such a tight societal group, and it was always a struggle to have a normal open relationship with others at school.

So when I flew to New York, I decided to stay there and study drama. Up until then, I hadn’t been particularly interested in living in a foreign country, but looking back, I think I wanted to escape from a cul-de-sac in Tokyo.

How was life in New York?

Everything was vivid and exciting for me. In the first year, I often had a fever … I was like an innocent baby teething (laughs). But actually, I was in New York for almost 10 years and I never wished I was back in Japan.

Though I took the directors course at the Actors Studio, I had to do the same curriculum as those on the actors and the playwrights courses for two of the three years, so I learned about acting and body structure and movement as well.

I was so busy and it was hard work, but it meant I could spend lots of time with other classmates and learn how to create a good atmosphere in a rehearsal room — and actually we all worked really well together there.

From your experience, does the American theater world have advantages over Japan’s?

The notion of nurturing actors and working on productions until they both reach their full potential is established practice there. For example, it’s normal to spend five years on a new play — different casts would be tried and sometimes the director would change during that process. I can’t say longer preparation always makes for better results, but the possibility is at least higher that way.

Also, the artists can challenge themselves more and explore their roles more without the same fear of failure that pervades Japanese theater. That greatly restricts risk-taking in Japan. It’s such a pity because I believe great ideas often come from taking risks and pushing the envelope.

How different is the support for theater arts in America compared with in Japan?

In the United States there are many kinds of subsidies and fellowships for theater arts. In the States, just 1 percent of the population is super-rich and it has well over 90 percent of the wealth, so the wealthy have established many arts foundations. Many of them also donate to the arts because such donations are tax-deductible. Similarly, they invest money in unknown artists without seeking favors in return.

There’s a wide variety of theater education in America, too. People are always actively studying, no matter their age, and they never stop learning. Drama schools open their doors to anyone from kids with no experience to stage veterans.

Do you have any particular plan for your current work, “Topdog/Underdog”?

I’m doing it in my style — the way I envision the piece — which is how I normally work. Time and again the actors and I will discuss the play and we try to arrive at a shared vision of how best to go about it.

It’s almost inevitable that there will be some inconsistencies between the world depicted in the text and the actual world created by the actors in the rehearsal room. When that happens, I first try to engage with the scenes created by the actors in front of me rather than just cling to the written text. Otherwise, there would be no point in creating a new staging, as everything is based on the actors’ performance. Next, we work as a team to try to stay as true to the text as possible.

Were there any difficulties in translating “Top Dog/Underdog” into Japanese?

In this play there are so many four-letter words, of which “shit” is one of the mildest, and the conversation uses a lot of the strong vernacular used by many black Americans. I thought, however, that I should sacrifice some of that vocabulary in order to make it work as Japanese text. If I’d worried too much about precisely following the English, I think it would have been better to cast native English speakers and do it with subtitles, so I opted for text in natural Japanese with the characters’ streetwise personalities expressed through their acting.

What was it about this particular play that made you decide to do it?

The play’s multitude of depths and layers was its main attraction for me. For example, how people’s view of history is influenced by current social events and circumstances; issues of race and racism; the emotional turmoil an ordinary person can feel; as well as contradictions in their personal identity, and so on.

“Topdog/Underdog” runs Nov. 30 till Dec. 28 at Theatre Tram, a 3-min. walk from Sangenjaya Station on the Denen Toshi or Setagaya lines. It then tours to Osaka, Fukuoka and Nagasaki prefectures from Jan. 4 to 18. For more details, call SIS Company at (03) 5423-5906, or visit (Japanese only).